Learning Lab

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink…

Next week I travel to Denmark for a conference on Behaviour Change. In fact it is run by the Danish Nudge Network! What on earth is that, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a long story and it involves competing brain systems trying to control our behaviour. Let me explain…

Think for a moment about ‘change.’ If you could change something about yourself – particularly your behaviour or habits? What would it be? We may want to eat more healthily, or work more productively, or manage more effectively. We want to change, but realise that making lasting changes to our life is actually quite difficult. That’s where the science of Behaviour Change and Nudging comes in – to help us understand how it works and to help us be more effective in bringing about lasting change.

The principles of behaviour change (BC) are based on many years of both behavioural and neuroscientific research. Essentially, research has identified two brain networks that help (or hinder) our attempts to change. Specifically, separate parts of the prefrontal cortex and different segments of the striatum form two circuits that compete to control behaviour (Parkinson et al. 2000; Parkinson 2008). Sometimes they work together and all is well. At other times, we might desperately want to resist that cigarette, but fail to stop ourselves.

A fundamental aspect is that just because an individual has the intention to change, this may not actually result in adaptations to their behaviour. This Value-Action gap (the difference between what I say and what I do) is a result of several factors inherent in human behaviour. For example, consider attitudes towards energy awareness and sustainability – most people claim to hold ‘sustainable intentions’ such as switching off lights, recycling bottles etc. But far fewer actually develop and maintain these new behaviours. One reason for this is that even though individuals maintain an explicit intention to behave in a new or different way, they experience a difficulty in suppressing old habits and so find themselves leaving lights on and throwing bottles in the waste bin.  Neuroscience research has demonstrated the existence of separable neural systems that control habitual versus intentional behaviour, thus giving a clear reason why we have this behavioural conflict: I am trying to recycle, but my habits keep stopping me!

Squire et al., (1990) famously proposed the distinction between Declarative and Procedural memory. The declarative system represents explicit memories of events and meanings that could be consciously recalled and manipulated (for example, What is the capital of France? you know it, and you retrieve it into your conscious mind). In contrast, the procedural system represents skills and habits that are implicit in nature (the representations are not accessible to conscious awareness). You know how to ride a bike, but it’s not so easy to try and explain the process to others. Since this initial distinction, the idea that two separate systems control behaviour has developed. Broadly speaking, one system is intentional, effortful and propositional whilst the other is implicit, routine and uses affective signals as its currency (Evans, 2008 – see table).

From an adaptive perspective it has been argued that the implicit system gradually acquires an enormous data-set of routine operations allowing the explicit cognitive system to be free, flexible and accessible. I can walk, drink coffee and maintain a conversation all at the same time – my implicit system controls the movement whilst my explicit system thinks about what I am saying!

Research into human motivation agrees with this framework: it has been shown that an implicit motivation system controls our spontaneous everyday drives, whilst an explicit motivation system regulates this by incorporating social norms and conscious expectations on our goal choices. I really want to eat that cream cake and it’s making me dribble (implicit motives and desires), but I am in an important formal meeting and it would be frowned upon (explicit motives and social rules). It turns out that implicit motives are better predictors of future performance (McClelland et al., 1989). Likewise, implicit processes such as habits and routines control much of our daily behaviour without a great deal of conscious or explicit input. This is fine when habits are adaptive, but challenging when they produce inappropriate behaviour.

In terms of our everyday lives, much of what we do at work is likely to be automatic and implicit. So if we have identified areas for change, it pays to analyse them in terms of what is controlled by the explicit system and what by the implicit system. This is why we have to effortfully work on creating new healthy habits, but can then sit back and relax when they become automatic.

Talking to the automatic (implicit) system is called ‘nudging.’ We’re not trying to convince someone to change, we are simply nudging the habit system in the right direction. Doors that you need to push will often *not* have a handle on one side. This gives your automatic system a clue as to how to interact with it. If you design a building and put the lift a long way away, more people will use the stairs – not because you’ve convinced them to exercise more, but simply because the stairs are nearer and therefore become the default. If you want to eat less, then buy smaller plates – it has been shown that we implicitly stop eating when our plate is empty. Smaller plates, less consumption. It works. And that is what nudging is all about. I wonder what the Danes are nudging? I’ll let you know next time!

– Dr John –


Evans J (2008) Dual-Processing Accounts Of Reasoning, Judgment, And Social Cognition Annual Review Of Psychology 59 , 255–278

McClelland DC, Koestner R, Weinberger J (1989) How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, Vol 96(4), 690-702

Parkinson JA, Cardinal RN, & Everitt BJ (2000). Limbic cortico-ventral striatal systems underlying appetitive conditioning. Progress in Brain Research. 126, 263-285.

Parkinson JA (2008). Positive emotions and reward: appetitive systems: amygdala and striatum. New Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (4th Edition). Elsevier.

Squire, L. R., M. Mishkin, and A. P. Shimamura (1990) (eds.) Learning and memory. In Discussions in Neuroscience, Elsevier, Amsterdam.

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